‘Shrill’ Ends on Its Best Season Yet Thanks to a Heart-Bursting Queer Romance
Lolly Adefope and E.R. Fightmaster explain how their characters’ heartwarming (and “horny”) love story came together—and what they made of that ambiguous ending.
Lolly Adefope and E.R. Fightmaster might only play a couple on TV, but that doesn’t stop the Shrill stars from engaging in a good flirt. When asked toward the end of our interview if either of them had anything to add to our conversation, Fightmaster didn’t miss a beat.
“Yeah, thank you for asking,” Fightmaster said before going on to name their favorite outfit that Adefope wore this season—an olive green ensemble that is, admittedly, striking.
“She shot that and then came on to set and I literally stumbled backwards,” Fightmaster said. “I was like, ‘Wow, you look so hot!’ So, yeah, if you could just squeeze that into the article somewhere…”
Adefope, meanwhile, took the opportunity to say that her worst day on set was when Fightmaster ignored her on her birthday—“because they ‘don’t believe in birthdays,’ they said!”
Aidy Bryant’s Annie Easton might be the central character of the Hulu comedy, which takes its inspiration from Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, but Adefope’s Fran has long been its secret weapon. With each season, Fran has evolved from a somewhat sidelined sidekick and fan favorite into a narrative force in her own right.
With Annie exploring the dating scene after a break-up with her old beau Ryan, Shrill’s third and final season zooms in on Fran’s budding relationship with her new partner, Emily—a witty, sarcastic stoner who also goes by “Em” and, like Fightmaster, is nonbinary and uses they/them pronouns. The carefully sketched romance, like the show that contains it, beautifully captures how deeply each of us both craves and fears being seen for who we really are.
During an interview with The Daily Beast, Adefope and Fightmaster broke down how their characters’ heartwarming and horny love story came together—and what to make of that ambiguous ending.
“I was excited to see how they made this relationship that started as a friendship get horny at all,” Fightmaster said. “I feel like as actors or comedians, we have such a fun time flirting with each other, but there was also so much friend energy.”
Fran offers a vital counter-narrative to her friend and college roommate Annie’s experience: Unlike Annie, who struggles with the toxic messaging she’s absorbed about her body all her life, Fran is ultra-confident and unconcerned about her figure or what others might project onto it. As we saw in Season 2, a greater personal struggle for Fran has been finding a way to be understood as a queer woman in her traditional Nigerian family. She confronted her mother at a wedding about their family’s homophobic behavior and their dismissive attitude toward her career as a hairdresser—and ultimately, she emerged more confident in who she is and what she wants.
This season, Adefope said, “You get to see Fran let her guard down a little bit more and realize that she doesn't have to be completely in control... She can open herself up to a new experience.”
Enter Fightmaster, whose irrepressibly charming character, Em, manages to break down some of Fran’s walls with a winning smile, loads of weed, and a lot of compassionate listening. In a major turning point, Em convinces Fran to call her mother during a Nigerian cooking session gone wrong; although Fran worries about how her mother will react, the call ends with smiles all around, as her mother reveals to Em that they’re the first person for whom Fran has ever cooked joloff rice. (Em insists that parents love their “good at chores energy.”) As the relationship progresses, the two become more themselves around one another.
Perhaps the funniest manifestation of this physical and emotional intimacy arrives when Fran and Em decide to make their own sex tape—an effort that turns out about as well as most amateur attempts do. As the two sit down to watch their erotic footage, they begin to gawk in horror at the awkward positions their bodies take, and the even more awkward sounds they make.
“That was one of my favorite days filming, for sure,” Fightmaster said, noting that they’d ad-libbed “an unusable amount of material.”
“It was definitely a day where I was like, ‘At any point they should be saying cut’—and they're not saying cut,” Adefope said—adding, with a laugh, “I was like… mooing a lot.”
But the scene is ultimately a touching one, as Fran and Em realize that despite their respective weirdness, they’re both still completely turned on by one another. “We're truly just like sitting on each other for hours going back and forth [about] who gets to sit on top… and then [Bryant would] come in and be like, ‘OK, so this is like a huge moment in the series,’” Fightmaster recalled with a laugh. “We’d be like, ‘Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah.’”
From its debut, Shrill has stayed true to its Portland setting and featured several queer characters including Fran, Annie’s sharp but narcissistic editor (John Cameron Mitchell), and a scene-stealing Patti Harrison as Gabe’s oddball assistant, Ruthie. This season also adds Julio Torres, who plays Fran’s bedazzled new boss at a cooperative hair salon.
Given the show’s setting—and the fact that it’s debuting in 2021—it shouldn’t feel novel to watch Fran and Em’s sweet, if relatively ordinary, love story. And yet, for both Fightmaster and Adefope, one of the most rewarding aspects of the season was the fun, light-hearted path their characters’ romance takes.
Fightmaster noted the pernicious pattern of gay characters dying on screen, particularly after finding love—also known as the “bury your gays” trope. “When I think about the kind of ‘gay programming’ that I was brought up with, it was like, Brokeback Mountain,” they said. “Even Carol is something I have watched and re-watched, and even then, the whole time you’re afraid that they’re going to die.”
The beauty of Shrill, Fightmaster said, is the way it approaches telling marginalized people’s stories—whether that’s queer people, people of color, fat people, or any other group that usually appears on screen to either serve as the butt of the joke or the target of violence. Although all of the characters have their struggles, those challenges do not define them or their stories.
“On a show where all of those bodies are involved and none of those bodies are in danger, you just get to actually be funny, and actually get to enjoy the experience,” Fightmaster said. “And you're not channeling trauma... I feel like queer actors are constantly just put in roles where they’re like, ‘Channel your trauma! Again!’”
“You want to find the balance of acknowledging privilege and acknowledging the disadvantages that you have,” Adefope added, without allowing that to completely overtake a character. “I feel like Shrill just nails the balance of... we can bring that in when it needs to be brought in, and also just let [these characters] be at the same time.”
In so many ways, Fran and Em’s relationship feels emblematic of what Shrill forcefully argues we all deserve: love, understanding, and joy. The show’s innovation is identifying not only the societal forces that argue some of us do not deserve these things, but also the ways in which we learn to enforce those arbitrary rules on ourselves, often through self sabotage. Shrill’s creators did not know the series would be ending on its third season—and although the finale works well as a conclusion, it’s hard not to wish it hadn’t ended here, when both Fran and Annie’s stories feel as though they’re just ready to begin in earnest.
Still, the season’s ambiguous ending feels fitting for a series that has often rejected tying things up in neat little bows. “I quite liked that it doesn't neatly end and things are kind of up in the air,” Adefope said, “because I think it's just very reflective of real life… I think it always kind of would have to end in that way, where it's these questions are open-ended. We’ve seen these characters develop, so we hope that they're gonna continue to. But who knows what life might throw up for them?”